You can love him, you can scoff at him but you cannot overlook the aura Narendra Batra has built as a hockey administrator for over a decade in his multiple stints at Hockey India Secretary General, Hockey India President, and subsequently becoming the first Asian to become the FIH President (serving two terms first in 2016 and again in 2021). For someone who had played at the domestic level for Jammu & Kashmir and is more than happy to talk about it, Batra does not care two hoots for the consistent bout of criticism he attracted for the manner he was administering the affairs of Indian hockey for close to twelve years. A perusal of his decade-long administrative stints makes you ponder and realize that he is a mixed bag (doing meaningful contributions to Indian hockey as well as ensuring it is his way or highway. One could see two templates in the way Batra went about running Indian hockey.
The first template revolves around Batra putting all his might towards players’ well-being something that was never a high-priority area for his predecessors (IHF). It was a regular sight to see national players being bundled into a dingy, unhygienic dormitory with substandard diet and toilet facilities while preparing for overseas as well as home tournaments. Batra triggered a change and ensured players were well looked after – they (players) soon got access to swanky hotels that provided the best of facilities. It’s not about hotels alone – players felt cozy and better-taken care of than before and they received overwhelming support for their training needs that included robust support staff. Even when players sustained injuries during a tournament or on the eve or at the end of a tournament, Batra via Hockey India undertook efforts to ensure the injury-recovery process of players was always smooth.
Besides the heightened focus on players’ well-being, Batra also deserves a pat on the back for frequently bringing major FIH tournaments to India during his tenure (2010-2022). India hosted a whopping nine FIH tournaments (three Junior Men’s World Cups (2013, 2016 & 2022), two Men’s World Cups (2010 & 2018), 3 Hockey World League Finals (2012-13, 2014-15 & 2016-17) and one Men’s Champions Trophy (2014). The plethora of major international tournaments hosted by India is in stark contrast to just three major FIH tourneys organized by the earlier Indian Hockey Federation over the last fifty years – 1982 World Cup (Bombay), 1995 and 2005 Men Champions Trophy (on both occasions Chennai). Even his staunchest critics cannot deny how instrumental Batra was in rolling out the lucrative Hockey India League in 2013, and was able to run it effectively for five years till 2017. The Hockey India League (HIL) not only poured money into Indian hockey but also improved our standards as well. The sight of Indian players getting overawed playing against top teams such as Australia, Germany, and the Netherlands steadily dwindled as our players regularly played with the best in the business on a consistent basis. One thing, however, is debatable is whether all HIL franchises were able to make money or turn profitable over their five-year association with HIL. It’s a given that the discontinuation of the Hockey India League gave his critics an opportunity to fire a broadside at him. And till date, neither Hockey India nor anyone has come out in the public domain as to why the league was scrapped.
The Indian hockey strongman drove a veneer of normalcy to domestic hockey, which was in a mess – nationals across age groups were held in a timely manner without hiccups. The former Jammu Kashmir hockey player instilled player discipline and cracked the whip on players resorting to bashing up umpires in domestic tournaments. Players using the hockey stick to beat up umpires was steadily wiped out. Batra also wore the marketing hat well and was able to pull in sponsors such as Hero Group as well as a lucrative deal with the Odisha government, who has been sponsoring our national teams since 2018 and now has a deal that runs till 2033.
The second template is concerning the flaws that accompanied him. His handling of foreign coaches left a lot to be desired. The likes of Spaniard Jose Brasa and Australian Terry Walsh found it challenging to operate as they were not given a free hand by Batra or Hockey India. Brasa has gone on record saying that he was treated as a ‘slave’ and that he had no say in team selection. “I see new faces at every camp, but also find some good players missing. I protest, but get no answer,” Brasa once told the media. He once categorically said that apart from India and Pakistan, everywhere in the world coaches pick the national side.
Terry Walsh unlike Brasa wasn’t as vocal – a thorough gentleman, the former celebrated Kookaburras striker knew where he was getting into and did not waste time washing his dirty linen in public, and politely exited as India coach. It was crystal clear that if anyone does not toe Batra’s line, he or she would be shunted out or at least compelled to call it quits. The credibility of some state association officials was always questionable but they continued to function with Batra’s backing. The sight of less-credible officials in state units hurt the game and it did not seem to concern anyone.
Batra also rubbed many players the wrong way – he was vindictive towards certain players and the wings of many promising careers were clipped. Take the case of Gurbaj Singh, who was slapped with a nine-month ban by Hockey India in 2015 based on a report submitted by coach Jude Felix, where there were allegations of misbehaviour against the midfielder. The Punjab & Haryana High Court termed the ban ‘illegal’ that forced Hockey India to lift the ban. Batra ensured Gurbaj’s career was over as he never played for the country save for featuring in the SAF Games with the India ‘A’ team. Harjeet Singh is another player who earned Batra’s wrath – from being talked about as the heir-apparent to star playmaker Sardar Singh, Harjeet had a lot going for him after he captained India to Junior World Cup glory in 2016. He was pitchforked into the public limelight by the Junior World Cup exploits and a movie ‘Harjeeta’ was made based on his life – something that did not please Hockey India or Batra – there were whispers that Harjeet did not take permission for the making of the flick and since the movie was made, he never played for the country.
Devinder Walmiki is another proficient midfielder, who got a raw deal – the Mumbai lad who played in the highly-competitive Dutch league like Harjeet was not considered to be even part of the 35-40 core probables – something that was hard to digest. One can also think of Devinder’s elder brother Yuvraj Walmiki, who was cold-shouldered for of course, not on grounds of ‘form’. Highly promising forwards from Madhya Pradesh – Armaan Qureshi and Affan Yousuf never got a fair crack of the whip and they vanished from the Indian team radar for good. The likes of Talwinder Singh and Pardeep Mor are names that come readily to mind among others – these are names that make you wonder what wrong these guys have done performance-wise not to be wearing the national jersey or prompts a question – did these guys get adequate opportunities to prove their worth?
Batra loves to call the shots and he showed that he is the man in charge of Hockey India despite being the FIH President. Earlier this year, when the Indian men’s hockey team returned from the FIH Pro League matches in South Africa, winning three of their four matches, Batra voiced his unhappiness over the performance and wrote to Hockey India to report to him about why the team had put up an “unacceptable” performance. The move smacked off “interference” – despite being FIH President, he was maintained a stranglehold over Hockey India. The Delhi High Court’s ruling (on a petition filed by former World Cupper Aslam Sher Khan) probably made his realise that the writing was clearly on the wall and he stepped down as IOA President, IOC member and FIH President.
Batra’s contribution to Indian hockey is enormous and something that cannot be brushed under the carpet. The man had his flaws even as he tried to improve India’s stock in world hockey. Clearly, the person replacing him would have indeed big shoes to fill and a massive job ahead of him. Running the affairs of Hockey India with a certain degree of accountability and transparency is all hockey lovers would yearn for, and COA would not have it easy as they try to amend the HI constitution and hold elections. Or will powerful Batra mount a comeback again? Never say never!